After its first two rejections by agents I’ve been giving my novel a makeover. Revision no.5 is nearly finished now. I’m sending it to a couple of kind friends who I hope will be able to tell me some of the things that are still wrong with it (even if they can’t list them all) and then I’ll give it a final going-over. After that it should be ready to be dressed in its best frock – smart title page, new synopsis, typos corrected – and presented to a whole lot more agents. I’m much less gung-ho about it this time, knowing how good my friends’ books are that already have agents, but I’m not going to give up yet. A bit of me is still waiting eagerly for that one agent to say, “I loved your book. I so want to take it on. Have you got any more?” even though experience suggests they’re far more likely to come back with, “I’m sorry but this really isn’t for us,” and probably not say why. One of my lovely tutors from Bath Spa said encouragingly, “I’m sure it will work out – don’t take no for an answer” and I’m trying to hold on to that. But there are hundreds of people out there with novels at least as good and interesting and well-written as mine, and the sad fact is that probably quite a lot of them won’t get published. Whether mine has got that special agent/publisher pheromone remains to be seen.
The important thing about all this isn’t really whether I get an agent or not- though that would be nice – it’s how much I’ve been learning from the revision. I think I can see more clearly now what actually makes a novel work (or not) and how to do it. It’s all so obvious: go straight in at the beginning, make sure each scene moves the narrative forward, keep focused on the main plot, don’t get bogged down in unnecessary description, and don’t let the main character be either completely wet or hopelessly unsympathetic – unless you’re clever enough to do it on purpose. I know all those sticking points and can spot them in other people’s work, but the ability to see them in my own novel – and, what’s more, try to do something about them – has developed much more slowly. It’s hard to take the pruning shears to all that beautiful foliage that you’ve nurtured with such care.
Elizabeth Bowen puts it succinctly in her Notes on Writing a Novel (in the posthumous collection Pictures and Conversations): ‘The most striking fault in work by young or beginning novelists, submitted for criticism, is irrelevance – due either to infatuation or indecision. To direct such an author’s attention to the imperative of relevance is certainly the most useful – and possibly the only – help that can be given.’ Infatuation and indecision – yes. Infatuation with a particular scene or piece of description, because I think it’s good or it says something I want to say, even if it doesn’t fit in the novel. The antidote to that is having the confidence to cut out what doesn’t serve the book, however much I like it, and one of the joys of using a computer is that it’s easy to keep good bits for recycling later. I know all about indecision too: which pieces to keep or cut out, what belongs to the story and what doesn’t, what goes where, who says what. That’s not so easy to deal with. In the end it comes down to trusting my sense of the novel’s momentum and some sort of gut feeling about how it needs to be – which of course can change drastically from revision to revision. I’m not sure I’ve got it right yet but I’ve gone another step on the way. A step in the direction of becoming more professional and, like a good parent, putting the book’s needs before my own.
And so it goes on. I may have got as far as I can for now, but whether or not I get an agent this time round there will still be revision to do. If no-one takes the book I’ll have to look again at why not, and if they do I’ll no doubt have to shape it up according to their suggestions. Some of my friends have been rewriting their books for months under their agents’ guidance. I could of course say, as some people do, that I won’t compromise my artistic integrity. If I were a more confident and experienced writer I might well say that, but though there are some changes I definitely wouldn’t countenance, I’m open to doing whatever it takes to make my book better. Just as I can’t see the back of my own head, I can’t necessarily see how my writing comes across and can usually gain something from having it pointed out – bearing in mind that the other person’s view is also subjective.
Sooner or later, and with all their faults, books do get finished and appear in print – or on the internet or someone’s Kindle. It doesn’t mean they can never be revised again – look at all those poems that poets have redrafted through the decades – so perhaps for ‘finished’ I should say ‘finished enough’. I’m hoping I’ll know, or someone will tell me, when mine has reached that state.